Bill Jacobson began his signature out of focus images in 1989. After exhibiting in a number of group exhibitions in New York, he received public acclaim in 1993 with a solo show of his Interim Figures at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. These shadowy, pale portraits were intended to evoke the sense of loss and faded memory associated with the AIDS epidemic. The blurred features of his human subjects indicate the futility of trying to capture human likeness in portraiture.
Jacobson's subsequent Songs of Sentient Beings (1994-1995) continued his interest in the blurred figure. In contrast to the bleached luminosity of his prior work, these images depict deep black backgrounds enveloping ghostly figures bending, sleeping, stretching, and howling. Continuing this dark palette, he went on to capture a nearly monochromatic deep-black evocation of the flow of life in Thought Series (1996-1998). Photographing a broad spectrum of subjects from tightly cropped faces to fields of grass and surfaces of water, Jacobson deliberately links the human figure to nature, suggesting the constant but subtle links between the two. Bill Jacobson 1989-1997, published by Twin Palms in 1998, is a survey of work from this nine-year period.
Inspired by a trip to India in 1999, Jacobson retained his out-of-focus approach but shifted to color, photographing figures moving through both urban and rural landscapes in Untitled (1999-2001) and New Year's Day (2002-2003). A monograph of this work, published by Hatje Cantz in 2005, includes a probing essay by the noted photographic historian Eugenia Parry.
Since 2003 he has worked with a variety of themes, in color and in-focus, all the while retaining his meditation on perception and human passage through the world. Jacobson’s third monograph, A Series of Human Decisions (2005-2009), includes an interview between the artist and Ian Berry, curator at the Tang Museum, and was published by Decode Books in 2010. This series depicts a multitude of intimate, focused views of the constructed world that people create, encounter, and leave behind on a daily basis. In the midst of this project, Jacobson traveled to several desert locations in the American west, resulting in Some Planes (2007-2008). Though the series is seemingly about landscape, ultimately the images reduce space to two rectangles of equal proportion.
Between 2009 and 2013, Jacobson completed Place (Series). These minimal still-life photographs depict rectangles of various sizes and surfaces placed in a variety of man-made and natural settings. They suggest the contradictions between architecture and nature as well as the idea that the built world comes from choice and desire. Inherent in this work is a questioning of what constitutes an image and what defines abstraction, both of which had been inherent in his earlier, out-of-focus images. The blank boards in many of the new images suggest notions of the infinite, echoing the very white and very dark portraits Jacobson began twenty years before. A monograph of Place (Series) was published by Radius Books in 2015, and includes a poem by noted poet Maureen N. McLane.